Will Citizen Journalism and New Media Take Over the News Business?

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The new media that have developed to fill the economic and news space left by the shrinking press are more difficult to characterise and predict. To annoyed critics of the blogosphere, it is an intellectual flea market; to its admirers, it may portend the triumph of citizen journalism in an emerging news democracy. Some smart, creative bloggers have earned loyal cadres of followers, including some reporters from the mainstream media who read and cite them. That’s fair enough, since many blogs recycle mainstream news. One blog author, who has developed strong stories by good sleuthing is Joshua Marshall. He is unlikely to be the last. Will the world of citizen journalism eventually take over the news business? I would venture a guess that the outcome will depend not only on the public’s patience with reading news on a screen, but also on how the controversy over “Internet freedom” is resolved. Here’s an erudite insight from Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths. 

Thoughtful people in the news business put favourable odds on the survival of the classic brands in print: The , The Washington Post, , and a few others. There will probably even continue to be a high-end consumer population that will pay the higher price for the print versions – not merely because those consumers are wealthy or old-fashioned, but because e-news designers have not yet figured out a way to make those sites navigable in the way a physical newspaper is. Those concerned with the science education of the American public hope that better navigation will make good science pieces more easily accessible. In any event, e-versions are likely to have far more readers than their print equivalents, and this gap presumably will grow as boomers are succeeded by their children.

There will also be room for local news and creative editors who have learned to tap into their communities’ values. Most really newsworthy events have a strong local sign – and they are trailed by stories. The local university is a prime source for such events involving science and technology. Who did the breakthrough research? Who supported it and why? How will the discovery aid the national interest? Will it resolve a major controversy? Such an event may go national quickly, but the secondary effects are apt to stay local as well as last longer. Furthermore, local papers often develop investigative reports that work well in print but not on the screen.

The new media that have developed to fill the economic and news space left by the shrinking press are more difficult to characterise and predict. To annoyed critics of the blogosphere, it is an intellectual flea market; to its admirers, it may portend the triumph of citizen journalism in an emerging news democracy. Some smart, creative bloggers have earned loyal cadres of followers, including some reporters from the mainstream media who read and cite them.

That’s fair enough, since many blogs recycle mainstream news. One blog author, who has developed strong stories by good sleuthing is Joshua Marshall, founder of a group of sites that originated from his Talking Points Memo. Marshall, who is given credit for breaking the story of the firing of U.S. attorneys that ultimately cost Alberto Gonzales his job, was the first blogger to win a major news award that had previously been restricted to mainstream journalism. He is unlikely to be the last.

But the blog universe has also become a supermarket for the propagation of all kinds of nonsense, including, alas, the organised promotion of some of the political untruths that led to angry shouting at recent “town hall” discussions about health care reform. The “journalism of announcement” also is capable of providing an abundance of scientific nonsense, which can quickly become reified into “information”: that vaccination can lead to autism, for example.

Will society come to profit more from the thoughtful and informative blogs like Marshall’s, or will it instead risk a damaging reconstruction of democratic politics by scientific untruths and conspiracy theories marketed by others?

Will the world of citizen journalism eventually take over the news business? I would venture a guess that the outcome will depend not only on the public’s patience with reading news on a screen, but also on how the controversy over “Internet freedom” is resolved. An abundance of ethical passion now clouds that issue because we exist in a world in which anything that can be said, will be said. The Electronic Freedom Foundation vigorously defends the view that any on freedom of Internet speech – by government or private entities – amounts to censorship. The debate has led to serious contests over intellectual property, particularly in terms of the swapping of music files, which the music industry views as theft.

One enthusiastic activist on behalf of openness describes the struggle as follows: The movement to keep the Internet free will be the defining fight in the information age, just as the movement is the defining fight of the age. As our physical make-up is reduced to a string of ones and zeros, and knowledge replaces property and labour as the means of production, democratic access to information becomes a basic civil right. That is quite an extravagant claim, but it is not an unusual one from the advocates for electronic freedom. The copyright battle may be central in this war, but concerns about Internet freedom may come from quite a different source. In several well-publicised cases, sites such as Facebook have been used by bloggers with personal vendettas, who employed Internet power to humiliate victims to the point of suicide, or in another case, to destroy the legal careers of applicants to Yale Law School.

In such cases, no legal remedy has been available to the victims – although had the same damaging assertions made against them been published in a newspaper or by a television station, those news outlets likely would have been vulnerable to a lawsuit based on a claim of slander or libel. No doubt the parties doing the damage took some comfort from their anonymity online. But Stanford Law School colleague Mark Lemley, a pro bono attorney for the two Yale women, points out that “such behaviour in the future may have to be accompanied by an understanding that you are not as private as you think!”

Can the barrier to legal action in cases like these be breached? It took some time before the freedom of speech issue had to be dealt with directly in the case of incitement. For some time, the canonical exceptions were pretty much limited to crying “fire” in a crowded theatre.

But the Supreme Court, in Brandenberg vs. Ohio, broadened the exemption, fixing on incitement in two ways: first, to include speech that is directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action, a clause including intent; and second, to include speech likely to incite or produce such action, irrespective of intent.

The perils of citizen journalism, and the capacity of modern search engines like Google to recycle endlessly any assertion about anyone, are coming to be understood by persons anxious about their careers. Many shun the permanent exposure guaranteed by social networking sites, and an ambitious politician would have to be crazy to post his or her latest idea in a place where it would be discoverable later by political enemies. College admissions officers are giving informal advice to new students to set their security settings carefully because much of what they post online can end up publicly accessible. Of course, it is premature to predict the onset of a regulatory regime for the Internet. But there are serious questions out there, and much about the future of news will depend on the answers society gives. This much is clear: the terrain of news and information is being reconfigured by new information technologies; but it is also being reconfigured by consumer convictions, loyalties, and preferences that are changing before our eyes.

From my perspective, public understanding of science may well be the most important social value at stake in this transformation. We must count on the surviving sources of news–those that practice the journalism of verification – to provide science coverage that is careful, cautious, and responsible. So far, the “new news” has given us scant encouragement that reliable science coverage will be as strong after this transition as it was in the past.

(Published earlier on another portal but no longer available there).

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Pix from the Net.

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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